Buttons: Wikis


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Wedgewood button with Boulton cut steels, depicting a mermaid & family, England, circa 1760. Actual diameter: just over 32mm (1 1/4") (courtesy of Northeast Regional Button Association)
Modern buttons made from vegetable ivory

In modern clothing and fashion design, a button is small fastener, most commonly made of plastic, but also frequently of seashell, which secures two pieces of fabric together. In archaeology, a button can be a significant artifact. In the applied arts and in craft, a button can be an example of folk art, studio craft, or even a miniature work of art.

Buttons are most often attached to articles of clothing but can also be used on containers such as wallets and bags. However, buttons may be sewn onto garments and similar items exclusively for purposes ornamentation. Buttons serving as fasteners work by slipping through a fabric or thread loop, or by sliding through a buttonhole.


Buttons in museums and galleries

17th c. Spanish metal button (courtesy of Peach State Button Club)

Some museums and art galleries hold culturally, historically, politically, and/or artistically significant buttons in their collections. The Victoria & Albert Museum has many buttons, particularly in its jewellery collection, as does the Smithsonian Institution[1][2][3][4].

Hammond Turner & Sons, a button-making company in Birmingham, hosts an online museum with an image gallery and historical button-related articles, including an 1852 article on button-making by Charles Dickens. In the USA, large button collections are on public display at the The Waterbury Button Museum of Waterbury, Connecticut, and the Keep Homestead Museum of Monson, Massachusetts, which also hosts an extensive online button archive.

Early button history

Buttons and button-like objects used as ornaments or seals rather than fasteners have been discovered in the Indus Valley Civilization during its Kot Diji phase (circa 2800-2600 BC)[5] as well as Bronze Age sites in China (circa 2000-1500 BCE), and Ancient Rome.

Buttons made from seashell were used in the Indus Valley Civilization for ornamental purposes by 2000 BCE.[6] Some buttons were carved into geometric shapes and had holes pierced into them so that they could be attached to clothing by using a thread.[6] Ian McNeil (1990) holds that: "The button, in fact, was originally used more as an ornament than as a fastening, the earliest known being found at Mohenjo-daro in the Indus Valley. It is made of a curved shell and about 5000 years old."[7]

Functional buttons with buttonholes for fastening or closing clothing appeared first in Germany in the 13th century.[8] They soon became widespread with the rise of snug-fitting garments in 13th- and 14th-century Europe.

Materials and manufacture

Hand-painted & glazed ceramic button depicting a bass
To find related topics in a list, see List of raw materials used in button-making.

Because buttons have been manufactured from almost every possible material, both natural and synthetic, and combinations of both, the history of the material composition of buttons reflects the timeline of materials technology.

Buttons can be individually crafed by artisans, craftspeople or artists from raw materials or found objects (for example fossils), or a combination of both. Alternately, they can be the product of low-tech cottage industry or can be mass-produced in high-tech factories. Buttons made by artists are art objects, known to button collectors as "studio buttons" (or simply "studios", from studio craft).[9]

Nowadays, hard plastic, seashell and wood are the most common materials used in button-making; the others tending to be used only in premium or antique apparel, or found in collections.

Decoration and coating techniques

Hand-painted Satsuma ware self-shank button

Historically, fashions in buttons have also reflected trends in applied aeshtetics and the applied visual arts, with buttonmakers using techniques from jewellery making, ceramics, sculpture, painting, printmaking, metalworking, weaving and others. The following are just a few of the construction and decoration techniques that have been used in button-making:

Styles of attachment

  • Shank buttons have a hollow protrusion on the back through which thread is sewn to attach the button.[17] Button shanks may be made from a separate piece of the same or a different substance as the button itself, and added to the back of the button, or be carved or moulded directly onto the back of the button, in which latter case the button is referred to by collectors as having a 'self-shank'.
  • Flat or sew-through buttons have holes through which thread is sewn to attach the button. Flat buttons may be attached by sewing machine rather than by hand, and may be used with heavy fabrics by working a thread shank to extend the height of the button above the fabric.
Three plastic sew-through buttons (left) and one shank, fabric-covered button (right).

Types of fabric buttons

  • Covered buttons are fabric-covered forms with a separate back piece that secures the fabric over the knob.
  • Worked or cloth buttons are created by embroidering or crocheting tight stitches (usually with linen thread) over a knob or ring called a form.
  • Mandarin buttons or Frogs are knobs made of intricately knotted strings. Mandarin buttons are a key element in Mandarin dress (Qi Pao and cheongsam in Chinese), where they are closed with loops. Pairs of mandarin buttons worn as cuff links are called silk knots.

Button sizes

The size of the button depends on its use. Shirt buttons are generally small, and spaced close together, whereas coat buttons are larger and spaced further apart. Buttons are commonly measured in lignes (also called lines and abbreviated L), with 40 lignes equal to 1 inch. For example, some standard sizes of buttons are 16 lignes (10.16 mm, standard button of men's shirts) and 32 lignes (20.32 mm, typical button on suit jackets).
The American National Button Society (NBS) has its own button sizing system which divides button sizes into 'small', 'medium' and 'large'.

Buttons as containers

Since at least the seventeenth century, when box-like metal buttons were constructed especially for the purpose[18], buttons have been one of the items in which drug smugglers have attempted to hide and transport illegal substances. At least one modern smuggler has tried to use this method.[19]

Also making use of the storage possibilities of metal buttons, during the World Wars, British and American military locket buttons were made, containing miniature working compasses.[20]

Buttons in politics

The mainly American tradition of politically significant clothing buttons appears to have begun with the first presidential inauguration of George Washington in 1789. Known to collectors as 'Washington Inaugurals'[21], they were made of copper, brass or Sheffield plate, in large sizes for coats and smaller sizes for breeches.[22] Made in twenty-two patterns and hand-stamped, they are of course now extremely valuable cultural artifacts.

Between about 1840 and 1916, clothing buttons were used in American political campaigns, and still exist in collections today. Initially, these buttons were predominantly made of brass (though horn and rubber buttons with stamped or moulded designs also exist) and had loop shanks. Around 1860 the badge or pin-back style of construction, which replaced the shanks with long pins, probably for use on lapels and ties, began to appear.[23]

One common practice that survived until recent times on campaign buttons and badges was to include the image of George Washington with that of the candidate in question.

Some of the most famous campaign buttons are those made for Abraham Lincoln. Memorial buttons commemorating Lincoln's inaugurations and other life events, including his birth and death, were also made, and are also considered highly collectable.[24]

Button trivia

  • Bits of old thread stuck inside buttonholes are called nubbins.

See also


  1. ^ American Indian Buttons made with ivory, whalebone and ink at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.
  2. ^ Domestic button collection, circa 1935, from Washington, D.C., at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
  3. ^ USPS uniform buttons, at 'Arago', the Smithsonian National Postal Museum.
  4. ^ Silver buttons held in the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Renwick Gallery
  5. ^ Khan, Omar (1999). "Fired steatite button". The Indus Civilization. San Francisco, USA: harrapa.com. http://www.harappa.com/indus2/128.html. Retrieved 11 March 2010. 
  6. ^ a b Hesse, Rayner W. & Hesse (Jr.), Rayner W. (2007). Jewelrymaking Through History: An Encyclopedia. Greenwood Publishing Group. 35. ISBN 0313335079.
  7. ^ McNeil, Ian (1990). An encyclopaedia of the history of technology. Taylor & Francis. 852. ISBN 0415013062.
  8. ^ Lynn White: "The Act of Invention: Causes, Contexts, Continuities and Consequences", Technology and Culture, Vol. 3, No. 4 (Autumn, 1962), pp. 486-500 (497f. & 500)
  9. ^ Peach State Button Club (2010). "Studios (Section 23-11)". Button Country. Georgia, USA: Peach State Button Club. http://buttoncountry.com/studios.htm. Retrieved 11 March 2010. 
  10. ^ Luscomb, Sally C. (2003). The Collector's Encyclopedia of Buttons (5th ed.). Atglen, PA: Schiffer. p. 53. ISBN 0764318152. http://lccn.loc.gov/2003101645. 
  11. ^ Victoria & Albert museum. "Man's suit, Coat and breeches". London, UK: V&A Images. http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O127202/mans-suit-coat/. Retrieved 10 March 2010. 
  12. ^ Victoria and Albert Museum. "Elements of a German filigree button, made ca 1880". V&A Jewellery collection. London, UK: V&A Images. http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O140427/elements-of-a/. Retrieved 10 March 2010. 
  13. ^ Luscomb, Sally C. (2003). The Collector's Encyclopedia of Buttons (5th ed.). Atglen, PA: Schiffer. p. 104. ISBN 0764318152. http://lccn.loc.gov/2003101645. 
  14. ^ Luscomb, Sally C. (2003). The Collector's Encyclopedia of Buttons (5th ed.). Atglen, PA: Schiffer. pp. 123-124. ISBN 0764318152. http://lccn.loc.gov/2003101645. 
  15. ^ Victoria & Albert museum. "Jacket from bridegroom's outfit". V&A Jewellery collection. London, UK: V&A Images. http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O22588/jacket-from-bridegrooms/. Retrieved 10 March 2010. 
  16. ^ "Coat - Victoria & Albert museum". London, UK: V&A Images. http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O127140/coat/. Retrieved 10 March 2010. 
  17. ^ Button Country (2010). "Back Types/Shanks (23-3)". GA, USA: Peach State Button Club. http://buttoncountry.com/shanks.htm. Retrieved 11 March 2010. 
  18. ^ Dahl, Liz (June 5, 2008). "For a collector hooked on history, every button tells a story". The Oregonian: Homes & Gardens. Oregon, USA: Oregon Live LLC. http://www.oregonlive.com/hg/index.ssf/2008/06/marv_bondarowicz_the_oregonian_3.html. Retrieved 11 March 2010. 
  19. ^ Australian Government (12 November 2009). "heroin concealed in dress buttons". Australia: Customs and Border Protection Communication and Media. http://www.customs.gov.au/site/Heroinconcealedindressbuttons.asp. Retrieved 11 March 2010. 
  20. ^ Luscomb, Sally C. (2003). The Collector's Encyclopedia of Buttons (5th ed.). Atglen, PA: Schiffer. p. 126. ISBN 0764318152. http://lccn.loc.gov/2003101645. 
  21. ^ Cobb, J. Harold; Kirk Mitchell (Feb. 2, 2005). "J. Harold Cobb's George Washington Inaugural Button Collection". J. Harold Cobb's George Washington Inaugural Button Collection. USA: Kirk Mitchell. http://mosc95.pld.com/kirk/CobbGW/index.html. Retrieved 13 March 2010. 
  22. ^ Luscomb, Sally C. (2003). The Collector's Encyclopedia of Buttons (5th ed.). Atglen, PA: Schiffer. pp. 214-218. ISBN 0764318152. http://lccn.loc.gov/2003101645. 
  23. ^ Luscomb, Sally C. (2003). The Collector's Encyclopedia of Buttons (5th ed.). Atglen, PA: Schiffer. pp. 33-34. ISBN 0764318152. http://lccn.loc.gov/2003101645. 
  24. ^ Luscomb, Sally C. (2003). The Collector's Encyclopedia of Buttons (5th ed.). Atglen, PA: Schiffer. pp. 119-120. ISBN 0764318152. http://lccn.loc.gov/2003101645. 


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